These prints are a combination of contact gum prints plus a digital black and white layer for a bit of contrast. They were all environmental portraits that I shot digitally and then contact printed with the help of digital negatives. The one layer gum prints were then scanned so they could be combined with the black and white layer and printed on watercolor paper. I was impressed with how the close the watercolor paper prints resembled the gum printing process, the integrity of the gum printing process shines through!!!
I am not the type of photographer that easily translates my visual work and the reasons for it into concise verbal or written reasoning. I am always a little in awe of those artists who are completely and oh so easily and casually able to do so. During my end of semester graduate critique, I was asked “Why Gum Prints, what do they offer that just printing digitally doesn’t.” I knew the question was eventually coming, but I had been so focused on learning my process that I had not really given that type of question much brain space.
My answer was probably as soft and vague as the visual first impression of a gum print can be. It was something along the lines of how I feel that the merging of the pigments and the soft swirl and layering of color that they give somehow feels more like the reality of being outdoors. Most of my subject matter ends up being some version of nature or outdoors, and sometimes the closeted feeling of being in an Indiana woods. When you are out in nature with the wind blowing or even just gentle drafts of air moving around you, it shifts trees, grasses, your hair, clothing, leaves, any and every object really, which then causes the light and the shadows to move, reflect, and absorb all around you. This feeling of the movement of light and color that is present at the time I capture an image, it feels visually present to me in the final gum prints. The images are not a literal interpretation, but more about that the feeling than something exact.
The second part of my answer is that I am drawn to the process. I like challenge of mixing my own pigments to re-create an image that obviously already caught my eye or I wouldn’t have taken the photo. My favorite moment in the process is watching my images appear one layer at a time as the undeveloped pigments lift off, and I also really like the mix of science and art. Since the beginning of this degree journey I have been looking for ways to link my science past to my art, but I was looking to my subject matter. The answer was process not subject matter. I have spent a decent amount of time working in environmental testing labs and science labs so I was already completely comfortable working with chemicals, scales, formulas, etc. The process is also not so rigid that I can’t make weird changes or go with a feeling I have about a different exposure or weird mixing of pigments. So all in all, the Gum Bichromate Process allows just enough of the rigid protocol of science joined with the flexibility of Art. Perfect because I like rules, protocol, and guidelines until I don’t, and then I just want to do what I want. This is a process that fits that part of my personality perfectly.
Along with those explanations I am going to start a running, random list of reasons to answer the question of, “WHY GUM?” I am also going to include quotes from other artists that say what I want to say better than I can.
- They feel a little less like a moment frozen in time. More like the moment still exists.
- I like the challenge.
- Process- It really is a lot of work for one photographic image.
- The nod to historical process. Gum Prints were the very first color photographs.
- Chemistry is amazing.
- I like to photograph trees, gum arabic (the stuff you mix your colors in!;) comes from a tree.
- Every image is one of a kind.
- “It (gum) is a process for the impressionist, not the realist, and is for the man who has an idea to put in permanent form, an interpretation of some beautiful mood of nature, rather than for the man who is content to reproduce simply the facts as they lie before him.” -Francis Orville Libby (Christina Z. Anderson, Gum Printing and other Amazing Contact Printing Processes, 13)
- On process and the mix of science and art, Mary Donato (who was a research Geologist!!!!) “…satisfying my analytical and expressive impulses by combining 21st -century digital devices with 19th –century printing process to create handmade photographic images. (Anderson, 33)
- Handmade and what she said. Handmade in this instance also equals time consuming and feels like a way to slow down the constant flow of time around you, especially in a world that just keeps zipping faster and faster.
- “Gum printing appeals to those who appreciate the journey as much as the destination.” –Christina Z. Anderson (Anderson, 37)
- “The gum process is all a paradox. It is at the same time the easiest and yet the most difficult of all processes; has the shortest scale and again the longest; is one of the oldest methods and yet to most of us the newest. It receives the greatest praise and at the same time the greatest ridicule.” –R.V. Sawyer in American Photography (Anderson, 36)
- I love mixing pigments and making my own colors. I get to explore color in a way that no other process in photography provides.
- I am the photographer, the editor, and THE PRINTER. I am now all parts of my process while still utilizing my electronic buddies.
- Photographic printmaking without the need of a dark room.
- I have gotten the hang of basic 3-5 layer registration gum printing and now I can start trying new things and different experiments within the framework I have built.
- There is not one, right way.
- Science aside when images appear they feel magical, and if my process plus subject matter has that same magical sense that I feel when in nature then it is a double whammy.
- Weird but true, I like using paint brushes.
- I love having a lot of small details to pay attention to.
- Tactile and not completely tied to a computer.
As soon as I get some of this semester’s work scanned in I will share the results of the ‘process’ journey that I had this semester. Until then enjoy the feeling invoked by Stewart’s two lane dirt road, you can visit his website gumphoto.co.uk to view more of his images and read about his gum printing process. I know I want to walk down this road -not drive.
The first layers of my gum prints are blue, the Prussian blue of cyanotype prints to be exact. I choose to use a cyanotype as my bottom layer because I absolutely adore the color of blue this type of printing produces, and cyanotypes offer a lovely crispness/sharpness to my first layer that makes registration of other layers easier and the final image more defined. Sometimes, I am so in love with the monochromatic blue image produced that I have a hard time adding my gum layers over the top. There are times that I make a second of print of the same image so that I can keep the first cyanotype. The monochromatic blues just have a way of enchanting certain images. It easier for me to focus on moving past the blue stage by using separation negatives for my images because without the other layers my image is not complete. Using separation negatives also helps to keep the cyanotype from overpowering the layers to come. But, in my opinion sometimes an image just needs to be blue.
My love of cyanotypes carries through to the development stage. I really enjoy the transition of the image from a dull olivey green, yellow, gray-blueness of the exposed image. The exposed, but undeveloped image, hints at what will appear in tonal values, of rich blue to white, once that first drop of rinse water washes over it.
There is a great chapter in Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost that speaks about blue, blue light to be exact (blue is not blue until your brain tells you its blue). She speaks so eloquently on the subject and finds it of such importance that every other chapter in the book is titled The Blue of the Distance. In the very first Blue of the Distance chapter Solnit describes, “The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost.” She had me when she said ‘blue is the light that got lost,” but she then further follows her statement up with a bit about the physics of light and how the blue end of the spectrum doesn’t travel as far. Science plus sentiment has the ability to make my heart mushy and my brain buzzy. I found myself devouring this chapter thinking ‘ yes, yes’to all words Solnit wrote about Blue.
Here a few snippets that really spoke to me:
“..the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.”
“The color of that distance (in reference to far away horizons, mountain ranges, anything far away) is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.”
I am not a poetic person, but when I think about blue like this it is easier to understand why I cannot always cover the enchanting blueness of an image with subsequent gum layers, even though I love all colors. I am finding cyanotype + gum printing to offer a large variety of image options, but occasionally I think I am just going to stick with blue the color of ‘light that gets lost.’
My choice of working with Cyanotype and Gum Dichromate photographic printing processes this semester left me in need of a consistent UV light source for image exposure. UV light is the kind the sun emits, which means that I could just expose images through contact with sunlight, right? Seems simple, except I live in the state of Indiana and while we get plenty of sunshine our weather even in the height of summer can be considered moody and shifty. On top of that inconsistency is the fact that at the start of this semester we were smack dab in the middle of an Indiana winter.
So, printing outdoors (and I love anything that includes me being outdoors) was not an option, but maybe for fun in the sun this summer. The university has a UV light box (this is exactly what it sounds like – a box with built in UV lights for printing) that I could use, but considering I commute that seemed quite far away for my needs. My logical conclusion to these issues was that I needed my own UV light box. I began by pricing already constructed, ready to purchase light boxes available online. One glance at the prices attached to the items, and I knew that my student budget was not going to result in a purchase.
This led to quite a bit of online research about building a homemade light box, and is also where I had to involve my best guy. Because, building my own light box is definitely outside of my current skill set. Thankfully, he helpfully jumped into the slightly confusing world of constructing an UV light box. It is confusing not because it is super complicated, but because a lot of the information available is specialized for specific instances, and I wasn’t always confident that all the factors from an ‘example instance’ would meet my specific needs.
I wanted to make the best decision possible about which type of UV light bulbs to purchase, and there are a lot of options. I did find one website that helped more than all the others when it came to understanding UV light sources. After, reading the above linked article I had more of an idea of what type of bulbs to buy. I could not find any of the bulbs I needed to purchase at my local box stores so I went to the Internet. Choosing the right type of bulbs was critical to the project and a most important first step. The dimensions of the box and what type of fixtures/ballast used all relied on the size of the bulbs. I made my final decision after much internal (and internet) debate, I had no idea if these bulbs would expose at a turtle or hare’s pace so I crossed my fingers for a hare’s pace and ordered a case of 6 F32T8BL or 8 diameterinch, 32 watt Black Lights. My lucky, crossed fingers worked, and a stack of 6 bulbs are providing 3 – 7 minute exposures for both my cyanotype and gum layers, what I would consider a hare’s pace in the world of alternative printing.
I am not going to provide step-by-step instructions for the complete building of a light box, but I will attach some images and here are a few general steps. Decide what dimensions you want to print then base your bulb purchase on those dimensions, choose a fixture (or buy all the pieces and wire yourself), and attach everything together in a box constructed without a bottom (the bottom isn’t needed unless you want it). I ended up going with the cheapest fixture for six bulbs that I could find (picture below), and my best guy ripped, sawed (hacked?), and re-wired it to the dimensions needed. The bulbs had a gap between them that I thought would mess up my even light coverage so this was necessary in my case. The images included here will give you an idea how this process unfolded. I couldn’t be happier with the outcome of this project and the convenience of printing it provides.